For fans of Arthur Miller, spring has brought a clutch of new productions to the West End with several theatres scheduling shows in quick succession, offering audiences a chance to see less well-known work as well as exciting new revivals of his most famous plays. While The Price was well received at the Wyndhams, Miller’s late piece The American Clock about the Great Depression at the Old Vic failed to illuminate one of the writers most disappointing plays. Miller’s best work, however, was always about families and the ways in which the American Dream, the forces of modern US history and social expectation play out among the confined dynamics of a single household.
Now half-way through this mini-Miller season, and with that in mind, Marianne Elliott’s much anticipated adaptation of Death of a Salesman set in an African American household opens shortly at the Young Vic and looks set to bring new meaning to this well-worn play. This week the Old Vic presents its new version of All My Sons to the press, a production that boasts three significant debuts – Hollywood and Broadway elite Sally Field and Bill Pullman make their first West End appearance as does Jenna Coleman essentially working on her first professional play. Colin Morgan is virtually a West End veteran by comparison undertaking his second major role in under a year (having played the lead in Translations at the National last May).
Set in 1947, All My Sons is a story about the long shadow of conflict and one family’s inability to move-on from the death of their eldest son in combat until truths are heard and a final reckoning occurs. These are major themes in Miller’s work as personal delusions must be shattered so that a purer world can emerge, one in which the younger generation can live free of the guilt of their parents who must accept responsibility for the world they have created, one often driven more by commerce than duty. All My Sons is a tragedy in the truest theatrical sense, as flawed characters must recognise their folly and atone for the devastation they cause, something which director Jeremy Herrin manages adroitly as his production builds to its powerful and inevitable finale.
But as the curtain rises on Max Jones’s charming garden set, the Keller house looms into view, indicating right from the start that this seemingly beautiful home is a trap for each of the characters we are about to meet, the manifestation of patriarch Joe’s need to provide for his family, but with a stranglehold that prevents any of them from truly moving on. Still mourning the death of their son Larry – or in wife Kate’s view refusing to accept his death – the family are frozen by the events of their past, the apple tree snapped in half by the storm denoting a rotten emptiness beneath Jones’s verdant design, one that mirrors Joe’s character, the surface decency stripped away as the story unfolds.
The cost of war hangs heavy over this lush scene and in Herrin’s meaningful production a clear divide is drawn between the men who fought and the much-hated war profiteers, in this case carving the Keller family right down the middle. The three core young men in the play – Larry, Chris and Ann’s brother George – are all veterans, risking death and injury for their country which creates an idealism in Chris particularly about the kind of world they fought to protect. Their military service is subtly referenced but it stands in stark contrast to the concerns of businessman Joe, building a firm from scratch and, after the accusations against him are dispelled, taking pride in resuming his place in the neighbourhood and his profit margin. Miller actively asks the audience whether these two things have the same societal value, a question which drives the play’s powerful conclusion. Miller is drawing a clear line between the experience of former servicemen and the civilians who will never understand.
There is a shifting notion of heroism in Herrin’s production, not just in the idea of servicemen dying in battle and this tangible concept of societal duty that underscores the central drama, but it is also there in the relationships between father and son – another major Miller theme – as Chris is forced to readjust his devoted admiration for Joe in light of the play’s various revelations. The result is affectingly portrayed here as the external perception of Joe and his own self-image are fundamentally destroyed. What makes this so illuminating a proposition is that unlike the idealistic Chris living in a bubble of family protection, Miller reveals that the secondary characters, neighbours and friends were never fooled, that there is a complicity in the knowledge that Joe had cheated the system for his own ends, showing him and this perfect enclave of rural America to be a far grubbier proposition, pitting this against the suggested purity of the younger generation dying in battle to preserve a country that betrayed them.
The faces Joe shows to his family and to the world are clearly quite different and those layers are what make Pullman’s performance so fascinating. As an actor, his creations often have an essential decency through their core that makes them generally admirable, whether he’s playing the bumbling lover in rom-com While You Were Sleeping, US President in Independence Day or surly detective in The Sinner, there is an essential humanity and compassion in the characters he chooses. Here, Pullman uses our expectation to his advantage, blindsiding the audience with Joe’s surface charm. When we first meet him, he’s relaxing in the garden, light and friendly with his neighbours, devoted to his son, the very image of man at ease with himself and the life he’s worked hard to build. But there is something under the surface that subtly takes over Pullman’s performance. You hardly notice it at first, only that his son never returns the physical affection Joe shows him, there is a barely perceptible barrier keeping them apart.
Joe’s determination to ignore Kate’s ravings for her lost son, his frustration with neighbour Frank for humouring her with a horoscope to prove Larry must still be alive, and later his momentary loss of temper slowly builds a picture of a different man to the one we’ve seen. Pullman is excellent in conveying the slow emergence of Joe’s commercial and unforgiving inner self, the artful manipulation of those around him to conceal the truth and the gradual realignment of the audience’s perspective on him. Yet the performance is still full of pathos, particularly in the closing scenes when he must confront his crumbling self-assurance while clinging to the excuse of family prosperity. The power of the play’s finale moments is testament to the conflicted complexity that Pullman has found in Miller’s hugely flawed but engagingly multi-layered character.
In the same vein Kate’s illusions must also be shattered in order for this contaminated past to be left behind, a place where only by facing the truth can the characters be free to live as Kate urges Chris in the play’s final moments. Sally Field is exceptionally good as Kate in an incredibly difficult role that must make the nervy emotionalism of a desperate mother somehow credible without seeming too histrionic which Field does with ease. Her Kate is at a fever pitch from the start, fussily anxious about Ann’s unexpected return and the consequences for her family while clinging harder than ever to the certainty of Larry’s eventual return.
What Field does so well is balance the extremes of Kate’s behaviour, making her a frustrating person for Chris and Joe to manage, while retaining a deep sympathy for a woman who has devoted her life to being a wife and mother – a maternal warmth that equally welcomes the temporary return of George with genuine affection – and now unable to accept the failure of her own dreams for herself and for them. Her delusion makes her occasionally cruel, especially to Ann but also to Chris with whom she also remains at a slight distance, while the final reckoning is devastatingly played by Field as the truth finally overwhelms her.
Colin Morgan as son Chris is the innocent in the play, reacting to the revelations and sudden shifts that affect the lives of his parents. As an all-American boy who served his country and returned to the family business, Morgan pitches his performance somewhere between Marlon Brando and James Dean, a young man keen to embrace the future with a marriage inspired by the happiness of his parents but frustrated by the general pretence that the war never happened. Of all the characters Chris is most eager for truth and a new beginning but still craves the familiarity of home which Morgan evokes well.
As the most idealistic character, we start to see other, more critical, perspectives on Chris as the story unfolds so Morgan inserts a slight ambiguity into the relationship with Joe, a discomfort when hugged or touched by his father implying, at least a subconscious implication, of his father’s deception that aligns with the neighbour’s view of Chris’s possible complicity. Although Morgan’s accent gets a little thicker in the final act as Chris’s emotional state heightens, his performance suggests interesting questions about what he really knew and whether pursuing his brother’s fiancée is a chance to make amends for his family’s crimes. Is Chris more like his mother than he realises, refusing to believe something he knows to be true, eventually forced to confront his own failure to act.
Jenna Coleman makes an impressive stage debut as Ann, the catalyst for change in the Keller family, convincingly capturing the frustration and forward-looking desire of a woman expected to mourn her dead fiancé forever. Her affection for the Keller family is clear along with the need to return from the anonymous city to a place that signifies home and comfort, something she hopes a life with Chris will restore to her. Equally her brother George, played extremely well by Oliver Johnstone, has the most dramatic scene, full of rage and injustice as he sweeps in determined to rectify the past. Also a war veteran, Johnstone implies a slight limp, and uses his small but pivotal role to reinforce the loss of innocence that Miller is writing about in this Eden-like garden, where George is tempted for a few seconds by the warmth of the Keller family and his own long departed memory of childhood happiness.
Herrin controls the unfolding story very carefully, the slow sense of unease growing through the long lazy summer day of Act One, building to an edge-of-your-seat tension as the drama unfolds in Act Two and Three. With Death of a Salesman opening soon, and two of Hollywood’s finest actors making a welcome and impressive West End debut here in All My Sons, spring is proving to be quite the treat for Miller fans. With compelling performances from the four leads this production of All My Sons fulfils its promise, a gripping Miller tragedy that concludes with a lasting sense of devastation.